Author Archives: clairegebben

Name change for Family Chronicle

family chronicle cover

January/February 2015 issue

Family Chronicle: A how-to-guide for tracing your ancestors recently arrived at my door, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

I learned about the publication when giving at talk at South Whidbey Genealogical Society. It’s a Canadian magazine with 80-percent distribution in the U.S. You’ll find it at many libraries and genealogical societies, and also in the magazine section at Barnes & Noble. And, I’m proud to announce, my article: “My Ancestor Was a Blacksmith!” appears in the January/February 2015 issue.

ancestor was a blacksmith



But that’s not all. There are a lot of great articles in this issue, including one on clues for discovering more about your family’s musical traditions. Here’s an excerpt from “Music in the Family”

Estate records for farmers often mention small bells that were placed on harnesses, or around the necks of sheep and cattle. … One bell was enough for a flock of sheep. The bell was placed around the neck of a “wether”, a castrated ram that the flock would follow. Called a bellwether, this term has evolved into a word for a person or group that leads followers into a coming social or political trend.

Love it! There are also articles on finding African American ancestors before 1866, a “Primer on the Russian Language and Names,” a primer on using DNA in genealogy research, and, my personal favorite, a great article called “Black Sheep, Loose Nuts, and Family Secrets,” about how to handle those skeletons in the closet.

The articles are all well written and informative. But one caveat — the publication won’t be called Family Chronicle for long. Beginning with the March issue, the magazine will continue under a new name: “Your Genealogy Today.” I’m really glad I found this publication, and honored to be in such good company.

The Five Points slum

When I first learned my German immigrant ancestor Michael Harm arrived in New York on June 30, 1857, I thought I’d have trouble digging up some newsworthy event to write about. Au contraire. Or rather, ganz im Gegenteil!

five pointsIn the 19th century, New York City had a seriously grungy neighborhood, a notorious slum called the “Five Points.” Conditions in the Five Points –so named because five streets met at one intersection–were so overcrowded it became an “international attraction, drawing such notables as  Charles Dickens, a Russian grand duke, Davy Crockett, and Abraham Lincoln. … In its heyday, Five Points was very likely the most thoroughly studied neighborhood in the world. Journalists chronicled its rampant crime, squalid tenements, and raucous politics.” –Tyler Anbinder, Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum, New York: The Free Press, 2001.

The opening scene of my novel The Last of the Blacksmiths is set in Manhattan during the weekend of the Five Points Gang and Police Riots of 1857, because, as fate would have it, my great-great-grandfather Michael Harm actually did arrive in New York City that July 4th weekend, just in time to witness those frightening, deadly events.

“Oh, you mean like that movie, ‘Gangs of New York’?” People ask me at book talks.

nyc five points mid-19th centuryWell, yes and no. The Five Points was the scene of 1857 gang and police riots, and also of 1863 Civil War draft riots. From what I can tell, the ‘Gangs of New York’ movie is a make-believe, mixed up jumble of those two historic events.

I won’t go into all the facts, as we know them, since others have already done so, at web sites like Urbanography, and the History Box. Here’s a succinct summation of that time from Gregory Christiano.

The year 1857 in New York City was a memorable one, or rather, a harrowing one.  It was a terrible time for the City and the nation.  A year best forgotten because of its painful consequences.  Not only were the two police forces battling each other, gang warfare broke out in July. Police battled police, police battled gangs, gangs battled gangs, and gangs attacked pedestrians, shopkeepers and residents. It was an incredible scene of mayhem and unrest.

Kings of Kallstadt

On the first weekend of my arrival in Freinsheim this past September, my relatives and I sallied forth to hike the vineyards in celebration of the annual Freinsheim Weinwanderung.

weinwanderung time to go

Ina, Manfred, Matthias and Lenny (the collie) on the first night of the Weinwanderung

Friday evening, as we headed out of town to ascend to a hilltop vantage point and await the opening night fireworks (an occasion that included the sampling of several wines), my relatives encountered friends of theirs, so we stopped to talk.

“Here is our American relative, Claire Gebben,” they said (I think), introducing me. “She’s written a book about her ancestors from Freinsheim, who emigrated from here to America in the 19th century.”

“Oh, like the ‘Kings of Kallstadt!!” All eyes turned to me. “Have you seen the film? It’s really really great.”

freinsheim wine hike group

Sunset on the Weinwanderung in Freinsheim

I had not seen the film. I wasn’t even sure what they were talking about. But as the three-day celebration of hiking and wine sampling wore on, over and over again we encountered friends who, when they were introduced to me and heard my story, warmed eagerly to the subject of the “Kings of Kallstadt.” I couldn’t understand half of what was said, but the delighted laughter and serious conversation that ensued was certainly intriguing.

Vineyards on the outskirts of Kallstadt

Vineyards on the outskirts of Kallstadt


The town of Kallstadt, as seen from Freinsheim’s Musikantenbuckel

I had been to the village of Kallstadt, just 3 kilometers from Freinsheim, on my visit in 2010, where Bärbel, Luzi and I had stood on the outskirts and watched a wine-harvester. It’s a very small place.
We could even see it in the distance from the higher hills of the hike.

A few of the people we met spoke good English, and were kind enough to fill me in. “Kings of Kallstadt is a documentary film. It’s really funny, the dialect the people are speaking is our regional dialect. It’s about people who emigrated from the village of Kallstadt to America, and became really famous. Donald Trump’s family is one of them. And the Heinz family of Heinz ketchup.”

About a week later, a group of us went to see the film. The documentary is in German, but even so, I found it hugely entertaining. Simone Wendel, documentary film-maker, visits with residents of Kallstadt, especially distant relatives of the famed Trump and Heinz families, to sleuth out if there is some unique quality to this village that led two emigres to enjoy such fame and fortune in the U.S. After a humorous investigation of the lifestyles of these rural villagers, the documentary follows a tour of Kallstadt residents to New York City. They meet with Donald Trump and his brother, and also take a tour bus ride to Michigan to visit the Heinz ketchup factory. A short Youtube clip of the film is here. In the end, they don quirky outfits and carry banners and march in New York City’s German American Day parade.

Interestingly, Donald Trump and his brother were willing to be interviewed and appear in the movie, but the Heinz family made no such accommodation. For the Heinz family, perhaps too many generations had passed for them to truly appreciate the connection? Heinz founder Henry John Heinz came over just after the Civil War, whereas the Trump family arrived in the early 20th century.

Kings of Kallstadt

Scene from the documentary film “Kings of Kallstadt”

My last weekend in Freinsheim, after a hike in the Pfalzer Wald, my relatives and I stopped in Kallstadt to enjoy a glass of new wine and slice of onion cake (Neuer Wein und Zwiebelkuchen). Who should join us in the outdoor garden but a celebrity from “Kings of Kallstadt,” a descendant of the Heinz family I believe, who came over to our table and chatted briefly. Small world. Although I’m sorry to say I don’t know her name, she was delightful in person, too.

On my flight home, browsing the Lufthansa magazine, I learned about another King — Elvis Presley.

What is less known about Elvis is that his ancestors came from Germany, their original surname was Pressler. … His surname, Presley, is anglicized from the German name Pressler from Elvis’ ancestor Johann Valentin Pressler who immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1710. Johann Valentin Pressler, a winegrower emigrated to America in 1710. Pressler came from a village in southern Palatinate called Niederhochstadt. Niederhochstadt became Hochstadt sometime during the 250 years after Johann Pressler left it, but there are still many Presslers there, among them a winegrower like Johann Valentin. Johann Valentin first settled in New York and later moved his family to the South.” From

What Frankfurt Book Fair is (and isn’t)

Frankfurt Book FairThis October, I attended the international Frankfurt Book Fair (Frankfurter Buchmesse) for the first time. The Fair was everything I expected it to be — a massive assembly of book industry professionals gathered to do business in publishing and celebrate books. And more. Luckily, I didn’t go alone. I had my trusted friend Angela to help me navigate, a good thing because even though just about everyone speaks English, it really is important to know German as well. The halls were mobbed with 270,000 people speaking every language imaginable.

What was it like to be among them?

fbf escalatorMind-boggling. This annual event is, in a word, global. From big publishers to smaller ones, from Western European countries like Spain, Germany and the U.K. to Arab nations like Turkey and Iran, to India, China, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, New Zealand and Australia, African countries, Latin American ones, Canada and the U.S., all have a presence at the Frankfurter Buchmesse. It’s a marvelous microcosm of our populous, diverse and literate human race.

fbf exhibit aerial viewTo start with, at first glance I was blown away by the elaborate nature of the exhibits. Publishers fly in with entire stage sets. They construct living rooms and libraries, replica kitchens and high-tech news rooms, then furnish them with tables and chairs, plants, art, and shelves and shelves of books. fbf doubledeckerA British publisher even brought in a double-decker bus and set fruit crates  full of books outside of it, to tantalize fair-goers with titles as if offering up sweet mangoes and crisp autumn apples.

fbf living roomWhy go to all this trouble? The exhibits are not just displays, but features of the hottest books on the market, set out to entice scouts and buyers with the newest titles and the best quality publishers have to offer.

And they’re mobile offices. Meetings are going on constantly at every exhibit, sales reps at tables showing catalogs, touting bestsellers and potential breakout novels.

fbf gutenbergIn addition to publishing house exhibits, there are booths with translators, editors, universities, antique books, intriguing demonstrations. I especially enjoyed the demonstration of a Gutenberg press (pictured at left).

fbf crowds

Besides which, around 9,000 press people are prowling the convention center halls, some trailed by TV cameras. The press are there to interview authors, agents and publishers, to dig up stories wherever they can. Graphic artists come to see what’s hot and interest publishers in their work, photographers and illustrators trawl the art books for ideas. An entire hallway is devoted to 2015 calendars, those big glossy full color ones that show up in bookstores around the holidays each year.

In contrast to the publisher book displays open to all, the international literary agent Hall 6.0 was arranged like a fortress, a long blocked-off hallway with guards at the front counter. You had to have an appointment, confirmed by a ticket, for access to office carrels staffed with international literary agents. These agents have come to plow through a long list of potential clients as well as negotiate sub-rights for books on their lists: mainly translation and foreign rights. They’re cordoned off for a reason. Appointment slots fill up three months in advance. “They do see individual authors, if you get to them in time,” Rita in the New York office of the Book Fair advised when I called a month before my trip. “Most have been full since mid-July.”

fbf interviewBig name authors are also sighted at the Fair. If you’re Ken Follett or Haruki Murakami, you’re invited to be on panels, or give interviews, or a reading and signing. There is an “author’s lounge,” where famous authors hang out with other famous authors.

fbf hallAs a one-book indie author, I did not visit the author lounge, nor did I attend the Buchmesse with high expectations of fast results. Although the pre-Book Fair events offered a host of talks and panels on self-publishing, it is NOT really the venue for individual authors to attend, at great personal expense. It’s geared to the professional publishing industry. Although, rumor has it (and I mean rumor) that the Book Fair held in March at Leipzig  is more author-friendly, I don’t know this for a fact. No doubt travel expenses to get there, obtain lodging, and return are equally steep.

fbf angela readingNo, I went to the Frankfurter Buchmesse because I happened to be in Germany anyway to thank my Freinsheimer family and give a book presentation. And, it seemed like a fascinating opportunity to spend time with my cousin Angela and begin navigating the logistics of securing a German edition of my novel. She and I didn’t shell out big bucks (we stayed for free with a relative of hers in Frankfurt), and the entrance fee of about 72 Euros did not strike me as exorbitant.

It turned out to be a great experience. While there, I had the chance to:

fbf hachette

  • examine the books of different German publishing houses, both national and regional. I picked up submission guidelines, got a feel for who might be interested in my genre (historical fiction) and topic (19th century technology boom, German immigration).
  • speak with translators about prices, how long it takes to translate a novel, and ways to approach/find funding for translations. (Interesting side note: I learned a 300-page novel in English becomes a 500-page novel in German. Must be those long German words.)
  • fbf palatinate publishingnetwork with cultural/arts regional organizations that might offer funding for translating/publishing. (In truth, Angela did most of this networking in German, while I stood to one side and nodded wisely.)
  • meet with an international rights agent (by previous appointment, of course) about the possibility of her representing my novel in the German book market.
  • talk with two different regional (Palatinate area) publishers interested in publishing my novel.

Most of this, mind you, was thanks to Angela, who was brave beyond belief in approaching all kinds of people everywhere we went. While I still have many steps to take to achieve my goal of a German edition of The Last of the Blacksmiths,  I feel much better informed about the international book market. The experience was awesome. Here are just a few insights I gained:

    • there are good opportunities in international rights, if you have agent representation and a broader-themed book (for instance one with a multicultural setting rather than focused on specifically American issues. Oh yes, and impressive American sales).

fbf amazon

  • just like in the U.S., the traditional book publishers are becoming more risk averse due to the transition and change created by digital and indie publishing. A good number of publishers point to Amazon (rather bitterly) as the culprit (Amazon had only a modest presence at the fair — I presume because they didn’t need a larger one).
  • e-books are not as prevalent yet with publishers outside the U.S., largely because pricing and library lending policies are not well-regulated, making it a money loser.
  • print-on-demand books are not as easy in Europe as in the U.S., since printing of them is commonly outsourced to China or India or Eastern Europe, making quality poor, and delivery slow (an average of one week to 10 days).
  • in general, U.S. booksellers are separate from the rest of the international publishing world due to our insular perspective. “America is a one-way street,” one German publisher told me. “Americans like to send their books out to the world, but they aren’t so interested in bringing the world into America.”


On the flight home, I sat next to an editor who had been attending the Frankfurt Book Fair, too. “It was exhausting,” she said, “but I just loved being surrounded by so many people who love books.”

Me, too.

Tis the season

Tis the season, right? The season of shorter days, candlelight, “peace on earth” ringing out in choral harmonies.

Lois Brandt launches her book "Maddie's Fridge" at Bellevue Bookstore in September.

Lois Brandt launches her book “Maddie’s Fridge” at Bellevue Bookstore in September.

And, tis the season of holiday shopping madness. This year, I’m jumping in with both feet to support local independent book stores. On Saturday, November 29, it’s my privilege to join authors Janet Lee Carey, Robert Dugoni, Dana Sullivan, Samantha Vamos, Dan Richards, Kazu Kibuishi Justina Chen, Christina Dudley, and William Dietrich at Bellevue University Book Store, 990 102nd Ave NE, Bellevue, WA 98004. Local authors and illustrators will be at the book store at various times all day, from 10 a.m to 5 p.m., for Indies First Small Business Saturday. We each pull an hour shift. I’ll be there from 1:00 – 2:00 p.m.

I’m a loyal shopper at Bellevue University Book Store — I love their great selection of books, and also their art products and unique, clever toys and gifts. Come by and see us — we’ll be there ready to assist, to answer what questions you might have about books, offering ideas for excellent reads and gifts.

Wherever your shopping list takes you this season, please remember your independent book stores. These days, in addition to books, most have expanded their inventories to include all manner of cool sundries. Below are a few of my favorite local book stores:

In Washington –
Island Books on Mercer Island
Village Books in Bellingham
Edmonds Book Shop in Edmonds
Third Place Books in two Seattle locations — Lake Forest Park and Ravenna
A Book For All Seasons in Leavenworth
and of course, the University of Washington Book Stores, found in many locations, including Bellevue, Mill Creek, and Tacoma,

Loved my visit to Loganberry Books in Cleveland last spring

Loved my visit to Loganberry Books in Cleveland last spring

For my followers in Ohio, here are just a few inspiring, terrific stores —
Loganberry Books in the Larchmere neighborhood of Cleveland
Mac’s Backs–Books on Coventry, Cleveland
Fireside Book Shop in Chagrin Falls, Ohio
The Book Loft of German Village, Columbus, Ohio

Mysterious forces at work

imageMany wonderful things occurred during my recent visit to Germany. For instance, this interview published in Die Rheinpfalz newspaper.

Look, Mom, I speak perfect German! (not) The interviewer spoke English, naturally. She recorded our talk, then translated it into German.

The photo she used was taken in the market square in the heart of the old town of Freinsheim. We sat on a bench just to the right for the interview.

Freinsheim town market place

2014-10-06 06.59.40 (1)

Still in Freinsheim a week later, I gave a book presentation on The Last of the Blacksmiths at the Altes Spital Cultural Center in Freinsheim to a full house — about 60 people (probably half of whom were relatives). My cousin Matthias Weber, sitting beside me here, had translated my talk into German in advance, which I read to the best of my ability. Afterward, I heard several times that my American accent was “charming.”

A special celebrity appeared that evening — Michael Harm — a man who lives in Freinsheim today, with the same name as the protagonist in my novel. This Michael Harm has curly brown hair, just like Michael Harm in the book. As we talked, Michael confided to me that he is named after Johann Michael Harm, the first Harm ever to come to Freinsheim. Which means he and I are related — albeit some eight generations back.

Michael HarmOf course I gave him a copy of my book and couldn’t resist asking if I might take his photo, to which he readily agreed. And look how it came out …

Isn’t that weird? My camera was working perfectly the entire trip, except for this one instance.

At first glance, it’s disappointing. But just maybe, mysterious forces were at work. This way, Michael Harm can still live in each of our imaginations, just as we like to picture him.

Historic Frankfurt

Early last Saturday, when in Frankfurt, Germany, my very kind host Mia asked me what I wanted to see. The Saturday market? The older, historic part of town? It had been a long week, and quite frankly, my brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders. It was my last day there. I’d just spent three days and very long hours browsing the huge, international Frankfurt Book Fair. Foremost in my mind now was locating the airport in time for my departure flight the next morning. So I shrugged.

“Anything’s fine, whatever you think.”

Mia hesitated, then suggested we visit the Römer Platz. She said first we’d pass by an old church I might like to see. “Although it might not be open today — there might be a private Book Fair event or something. But Paulskirche is historic. The outside is still like it used to be, but inside it was renovated in the 70s.”

st pauls tourists

As we approached the cathedral, its entrance was blocked by a busload of tourists. Still, something about the place felt oddly familiar. I stopped in my tracks.

“Wait, did you say Paulskirche? The Paulskirche where Germans held their first ever freely elected parliament?”

Before Mia could answer, I’d dashed across the street, backing up against a building until I could go no farther, tipping the camera sideways to capture the very tall steeple. Mia followed, grinning.

“You’ll be able to get a better picture of the whole church over there, across the park,” she said.

“Oh, but I want this angle! I think I have the same image on file at home, showing this very vantage point at the time of the 1848 Parliament.”

st pauls kirche 1848st pauls kirche

st pauls plaque

Oh my goodness, I was delighted to come to this place. I took photos of the outside of the church (it was closed, as Mia had predicted) and also of the historic plaque by the door that gave dates and an explanation of that historic year.

st pauls claire“Give me your camera,” Mia said, holding out her hand. I shook my head, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer. “C’mon, be a tourist.” How could I say  no?

My whole trip was like this, serendipity, surprise, astonishment and joy.

Roman ruins, grape harvest, and the devil’s stone

Freinsheim may be a small rural town, but during my visit there’s been so much going on I have trouble keeping up.

Friday, Oct. 3 was German Unification Day (a celebration of the day East and West Germany re-united in 1989). It is a national holiday. My relatives all gathered in a terraced garden in the vineyard, in the shade around a massive stone table. Afterwards, we hiked to some Roman ruins — two of four sarcophagi discovered a few years ago in the fields, dating back to around 300 A.D.

Unification Day brunch in the wine garden on the Musikantenbuckel

Unification Day brunch in the wine garden on the Musikantenbuckel

a uni sacrophagi

Roman sarcophagi from 300-400 AD discovered in the hills outside Freinsheim

On Saturday, the Town Council Weinlese (grape harvest) took place — the grapes used to make the town wine. About 30 gathered in the vineyards to snip grapes and enjoy a wine-maker’s picnic.

a grape harvesting

A gorgeous day for a grape harvest.

a grape harvest truck

Talk about a big toy — future wine-makers of Freinsheim.

a grape harvest table

A table spread with schwarzbrot and blutwurst and liverwurst, cheeses and wine schorles. Prost!


Then, on Sunday, a hike and delicious Pfalzer meal in the hills behind Bad Duerkheim. The Pfalzer Wald is the largest forest in Germany.

The Teufelstein in the Haardt Mountains.

The Teufelstein in the Haardt Mountains.

James Fenimore Cooper hiked here and wrote about his visit, in The Heidenmauer, including the tale of the Teufelstein — Devil’s stone.

Heidenmauer in the Pfalzer Wald was built by the Celts around 500 BC

Heidenmauer in the Pfalzer Wald was built by the Celts around 500 BC

More about the Heidenmauer here.

a pfalzer wald neuer wein

Of course I drank Neuer Wein and ate Zwiebelkuchen!

Odd sights to a foreigner

St. Lubentiuskirche in the south of Limburg

St. Lubentiuskirche in the south of Limburg

odd sights spaghetti ice cream

Spaghetti Ice Cream with chocolate and nuts (it has whipped cream in the center)

odd sights locks on the gate

Inscribed locks on a gate by the Lahn — a custom of lovers

odd sights guinea pig farm

A guinea pig farm in Roedinghausen

odd sights cigarette machine

They smoke more often here — maybe it’s the cigarette machines.

The Nonnenstein and other tales

I’ve been thinking a lot today about my other German great-great grandfather Henry F. Hoppensack, born April 29, 1821. He wrote in his autobiography about his formative years growing up in Nordrhein-Westfalen. Clearly, he never forgot how hard he had to work on behalf of his father on the Estate Kilver.

roedinghausenn henry hoppensack

In an abrupt manner, not unlike Henry Hoppensack, I decided to go to Rödinghausen today. I had a few extra days and a five day Eurail pass, so why not? Why not go to the area of the Estate Kilver, try to track down a thing or two about Henry Hoppensack and his wife Ilsabein Hissenkamper?

Roedinghausen Lutheran ChurchFive hours and four train changes later, I disembarked in Rödinghausen, a quiet village tucked at the foot of the low-lying Wiehen Mountains. I checked into the Gasthof Nonnenstein and asked where I could find some clues about the history of the area.

roedinghausen pembervilleThe Inn owner directed me to this marker. Apparently, a good-sized passel of residents of Rödinghausen immigrated to Pemberville, Ohio in the 19th century. But not our Henry — he immigrated to Cleveland, where he ran a brickyard, and then a truck farm, and he and Ilsabein had about nine children.

Later, I couldn’t resist hiking up to the Nonnenstein. The forest was alluring, the beeches and pines full of bird song and green. The mountain rock shelves of the Wiehen date back about 165 million years, and not far from here in Duesseldorf lie bones of the Neanderthals. By comparison, Henry and Ilsabein’s histories seem like the blink of an eye.

nonnensteinWhen I arrived at the Nonnenstein, I admit to feeling a bit betrayed. This tower was built in 1897, and reminded me so much of the one at Volunteer Park, including its utter lack of purpose, the thought it had been my destination was a let down. The trees have grown up so there’s not even a view to speak of.

But who could feel betrayed after spending several hours in the calm, unbelievably quiet forest here?

roedinghausen forest